November 1993

In order to consider why Greek architecture has its particular form, we can consider the function. What was needed was a roofed building with doors to house the god. But why are the Doric capitals and superstructure in the form they are? Some scholars trace features back to wooden structures, but there may be other reasons.


According to archaeology the story begins in Corinth. Temples in the classical format were begun there in the first half of the seventh century. A comparison with buildings elsewhere in the world indicate that projecting eaves supported by pillars is not a notion exclusive to the Greek world (e.g. the Cameroons).


The Lefkandi building has columns supporting a roof. The building is c. 150m long and was built c. 1000 ‑ 950 BC. IT is the burial place of a chief. After the burial, the house (presumably his house) was pulled down and a mound built over it. When the Corinthians started to build temples there were also Mycenaean ruins to look at.

  At Tiryns there is a building overlying the Mycenaean megaron, which replicates the core of a temple. So seventh century Corinthians may have looked to Mycenaean remains for the format. But seventh century Greeks had forgotten how to cut stone and build large buildings: the technology may have come from Egypt.

What did the ancients themselves believe about the origins? The Roman writer, Victorinus, formulates the petriEcation of a wooden building. Probably the fluting on columns derives from wood, either from natural grooves or from vertical dressing. So also the triglyphs and guttae. (Aside by PCB: but there is the well known objection that triglyphs appear at the ends of both long and short sides). But is there no input from a designer? Some elements suggest that some of the elements are purely decorative and inspired by art; e.g. seventh century geometric pots commonly have friezes which closely resemble the pattern of triglyphs and metopes.


What happened at a temple? We read in many books that Greek temples were difficult to get into ‑ doors locked, only opened once a year, etc. So also says Pausanias. But he was writing in the second century AD. Contrary evidence suggests that wandering in and out was pretty routine for a worshipper. Evidence comes from Herodas, who wrote The Women Worshippers in the third century BC. Note also the existence of apotropaic monsters on pediments and gutters.


So what did happen in temples? The common view is that it all happened in the main cella at the front. This doesn't entirely square with the archaeological evidence NB the opisthodomos: some manuals say that the opisthodomos was a mere architectural ornament. But note the evidence from Selinus (Temple F). The opisthodomos has a screen built to block the intercolumniation. This suggests that some rituals which some people could not see perhaps took place in the colonnade. Many temples have ramps which suggest provisions going onto and off the platform.


Sometimes sculpture can suggest uses. The Hephaisteion has a continuous frieze over the back porch as well. This may suggest that people would be in the colonnade and would want something to look at.

  What about the decoration of temples? The general principle that we should note is that the Greeks were completely unconcerned about the material that they were using ‑ paint slapped on marble, bronze with gold and silver leaf over it; even with pottery the Greeks would put gold leaf and paint on it. Temples themselves were painted.

What about the prevalence of temples? Probably a minority of cities had full blown temples. Why? Probably cost for one thing. Where there is evidence for how payment came about there is always a windfall element. Either you won a war, or used tribute money, or had a rich benefactor. Temple building is an economic indicator. Some of the pedimental statues from the temple of Zeus at Olympia are hollowed out at the back, almost certainly to cut down on weight and therefore the cost of transport. Also cost can be cut by reserving high quality stone for important details like the heads and hands. This is a reminder of how lavish the Parthenon was.


Sparta had no local tradition of temple building. Sparta had a 40 foot high statue of Apollo, but no temple ‑ just an enclosing low sanctuary wall. The Menelaion wasn't a temple. The only Doric temple so far excavated in Sparta was only 16m long. So it wasn't just a matter of economics: local tradition also played a part in the distribution and prevalence of temples.

  Treasuries and stoas also reflect temple architecture. The style of the Doric temple was also appropriated for the grand tomb. But not in Greece: in the Greek East. The ethos in Greece itself was too egalitarian to favour such personal ostentation. Finally we must consider the royal tombs at Vergina in Macedonia, which again reflect Doric style.